Time for a change on asylum

How thousands are detained in Britain without charge and the story of one person who chooses to visi

The long-running political row over the latest anti-terrorism proposals to detain people without charge for up to 42 days has been in stark contrast with the silence over the 2,000 men, women and children detained in the UK without charge.

These are the failed asylum seekers who are held for days, months or years in one of 10 prison-like, immigration removal centres scattered around the UK, and they are invisible.

But when they are noticed, it is generally by the tabloids and right-leaning think tanks. A recent example: The Sun reported that the ‘foreign lags’ in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre are living in a ‘holiday camp’.

Well, for the past 18 months I have spent a couple of hours each week visiting these so-called foreign lags in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth next door, and from what they have told me and from what I have seen, it couldn’t be further from Butlins.

The two centres are next door to the Heathrow Sheraton and you could mistake them for anonymous hotels designed for delayed passengers and tired cabin crew. However, after the first glance, you see swathes of barbed wire, barred windows and uniformed officers milling around.

As a visitor, you require two forms of ID; finger prints and a photo are taken; and there is a thorough search. The atmosphere is a heady mix of loud, oppressive, emotional and distressing. Children are crying, couples are holding each other; and there’s me, talking to a stranger about politics, Hollyoaks, torture, music, desperately missed wives and children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and the infamously bad food.

I started visiting detained, failed asylum seekers during the summer heat wave in 2006. The political temperature was also running pretty high and the tabloids were baying for the blood of the now ex-home secretary, Charles Clarke.

The tabloids were scandalised to learn that foreign residents were released after completing a prison sentence. “They must be deported!” they shrilled, and the home secretary hastily complied. Inevitably mistakes were made, like attempting to deport British citizens. Abdul, my first client, told me he was British passport holder, who had come here with his family at 18 months old.

He had committed a petty crime and on completion of a short prison sentence, he received a notification of intention to deport to Bangladesh. After a speedy intervention from his solicitors in the High Court, he was allowed to go home to his British wife and children.

Aside from British citizens, torture victims also should not be detained according to the Home Office’s own guidelines. Michael, 20, from Uganda, and I got to know each other well as the many months passed in first Colnbrook and then Harmondsworth and he told me why he came to the UK: he came to the UK after the 2006 Ugandan elections, he was, and in exile, still is a prominent member of the youth wing of Uganda’s opposition party.

He was tortured by the Ugandan authorities – it is clear to see that some fingers nails on each hand have been pulled out - and he told me that he was badly beaten as a warning. He came to the UK soon after. Michael was on the ‘fast-track’ system, whereby the Home Office makes a decision on a ‘straightforward’ case within 24 hours, with a 99 per cent refusal rate.

According to Michael’s documentation from the Home Office, one reason why his case has been refused is due to the fact that the Home Office does not believe his claim that he was very politically active from 16 and became a constituency campaign manager for the youth wing of the party.

Perhaps, thanks to the political torpor among much of Britain's youth, the Home Office’s scepticism isn’t surprising. His case continues two years later and will be heard in the High Court in the coming months. He is no longer detained and receives counselling for post traumatic stress disorder.

The Home Office states people should be detained for as short a time as possible before removal. Currently, I visit Kak Ahmed from Kurdistan, who has so far been detained for 16 months after a short prison sentence.

He has told me that he can’t get out of Colnbrook because someone with the same name as him failed to comply with their bail conditions.

He feels that he and his solicitor have presented proof of the mistake, but judges repeatedly refuse him bail, believing he will abscond.

His solicitor is now taking this issue to the High Court. Kak Ahmed has severe medical problems, which the Kurdish government have stated cannot be treated in Kurdistan. So he is stuck in the system and being stuck means being deprived of liberty with no end in sight.

The UK is one of a handful of European countries that detains failed asylum seekers indefinitely, with no automatic right to legal advice, with no automatic right to bail and with no automatic case review.

Detention of failed asylum seekers is at the cutting edge of human rights but the majority of people, campaigning organisations, lawyers, journalists and politicians skip over these invisible thousands to politically safer territory.

I try to make a small difference to individuals where I can, but this isn’t scratching even the surface of the problem; there needs to be a sea change in government legislation that will end the indefinite deprivation of liberty that even terror suspects (rightly) avoid.

All the names in this article - including the author's - have been changed

Katie Walker independently visits Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. She currently campaigns with the World Development Movement. She hold a Masters with Distinction in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights.
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood